This year’s thirty-first annual Bum Steers issue includes some staple stupid-crook submissions as well as a few shockers—anybody up for a trip to the Alamo? Senior editor Anne Dingus joined Bum Steer veteran and senior executive editor Paul Burka nine years ago in compiling and editing the yearly list reporting on Texans’ tomfoolery. Here she discusses readers’ submissions, the art of writing headlines, and the irony in the state’s silliest family being named the Simpsons.
texasmonthly.com: So Jessica Simpson is the Bum Steer of the Year. Why not along with her younger sister, Ashlee, who suffered an embarrassing Saturday Night Live performance and is also on the list? What did Jessica do to win such an honor on her own?
Anne Dingus: First of all, let me just say that you’ve got to love the fact that—doh!—this family is named the Simpsons. They’re Texas’s own comic clan, albeit sans the witty subtext. Now, as to why our Bum Steer of the Year is the blonde Jessica and not the dyed-brown Ashlee: Well, Big Sis is still much, much more famous than her younger sibling. And despite Ashlee’s incredible blooper on SNL, she’s barely out of her teens—and besides, Jessica made a remark to a Cabinet member that will forever be enshrined on the top ten list of the most egregiously stupid things Texans have ever said. I won’t spoil the fun by repeating it here, but it still makes me laugh, and by now I’ve read it, oh, about as many times as I’ve watched The Simpsons. The smart ones, I mean. Finally, let me just add that we hold high hopes for Ashlee in future years. I sure wish there were more kids in that family.
texasmonthly.com: What is the usual process for deciding what submission is the Bum Steer of the Year? In 2002 you let the readers vote—what made that year different?
AD: Deciding the Bum Steer of the Year all depends on the events of the year itself. Sometimes we ping-pong between two great candidates, and sometimes there is a plethora of possible Doofuses Extreme. That’s why, three years back, when we had a quartet of winningly witless Texans qualified for the title, we decided (yea democracy!) to let the readers vote for their favorite on our Web site. Then again, other years the choice is just stunningly obvious. This year there was a lot of back-and-forth between editorial staffers about which Texan to choose, because some people felt that there were quite a few politicians and one particular anchorman who just begged, figuratively speaking, to be the Bum Steer of the Year. But senior executive editor Paul Burka, a trenchant humorist who has been the driving force behind Bum Steers for 31 years now, felt that a political choice would be instantly unfunny, because of the deep rancor that underlay this year’s election. I wholeheartedly agreed. Fortunately, the Diva of Ditz, Jessica Simpson, was ready and waiting to take center stage. We owe her sweet kisses.
texasmonthly.com: Have you gotten any backlash from past Bum Steers of the Year, or do the personalities involved normally laugh along with the readers and staffers?
AD: I think that, generally, the honorees are able to laugh it off. They’re not only grown-ups but also public figures, and they’re used to criticism. But their fans and supporters—oh, my! The letters, the e-mails, the phone calls! They’re downright blistering, and they sometimes number in the hundreds. What’s funny is that sometimes, for the very same item—say, a list of Bushisms, those famous slips of the tongue by George W.—we’ll get not only letters reaming us out for daring to criticize the chief executive but also screeds condemning us for going so easy on him. We can’t win, so we, like the lucky Bum Steer of the Year, have to laugh it off too.
texasmonthly.com: How often do readers submit Bum Steer suggestions, and how many out of those do you normally include in the final list?
AD: Oh, our readers are the best. They send us scores of submissions throughout the year. Many of them clip out the newspaper story in question or pass along a hyperlink to a pertinent Web site. One lady in San Antonio even made a special trip from her home to take a picture of a sign so we could see exactly what it looked like. Quite of few of those submissions end up in the actual feature, which usually contains close to one hundred items—the best of the jest, as it were. That final count has been winnowed down from an original batch of five hundred or so clippings, printouts, letters, photos, and more, which, all year long, we faithfully store in a giant box until it’s time to sit down and start sorting and chortling.
texasmonthly.com: There are multiple marijuana items and several public-school submissions on this year’s list. After being involved with Bum Steers for so long, are you able to notice any trends in some Texans’ degree of ridiculousness?
AD: The trends vary from year to year. You can’t predict them; you can only salaam in gratitude. This year, for some reason, marijuana was, uh, high on the list. Six pot-related items survived until the final cut, and they’re all so funny—each reminds me of that old line, “Why do you think they call it dope?” And our public schools’ zero-tolerance rule, a poorly thought-out policy (to say the least), has always produced a couple of beautiful Bum Steers, but this year there was an unusually high number (a Bum-per crop?). Year in, year out, though, by far the most prevalent and stalwart items are those about stupid lawbreakers. Regrettably, we usually end up ditching some simply because we don’t want that topic to dominate the feature. Some dumb-crook items are so common we automatically disqualify them; for example, every single year there is at least one item on a wannabe burglar who either gets stuck in a chimney trying to break into a house, falls asleep in a home or business mid-theft, or leaves some form of I.D. behind at the scene of the crime. Still, sometimes a great headline can save even these common items. This year there’s a squib about a man who robbed a Whataburger but was arrested because, during the crime, he dropped a job application for the fast-food eatery that contained his name and address. The head is “That explains why his references sounded like they were talking through pantyhose.”
texasmonthly.com: What’s your favorite Bum Steer submission this year? Why?
AD: Decisions, decisions! But I’ll go with my very first thought, which is the story about the couple who was nabbed having sex at the Alamo. In terms of idiocy, flagrancy, and Texanness, this is the perfect Bum Steer. Naturally, thinking up heads for this item was delightful (and decidedly off-color). This event occurred in October and made headlines nationwide, long before we wrote our item and our own head, but I must tip my hat to the staffer of the e-magazine who came up with “Apparently There’s One Soldier Still Standing at the Alamo.” I so wanted to steal that!
texasmonthly.com: Which headline is your favorite? Is it harder to write the headlines than compile the submissions?
AD: It is much harder to write the headlines, but it’s also much more fun. I have to say that I enjoy having a job at which I get paid to make bad puns. Nice perk! Also, sitting around with Paul Burka and another notoriously sharp wit—our editor, Evan Smith—isn’t work at all. We get so giddy laughing that I’m sure our co-workers think we’re secretly taking pulls at pocket flasks. As to my favorite headline, it is, year after year, Paul’s pun head. This is a tradition that dates back to the very first Bum Steer Awards in 1974, when Paul began writing, for one particular item, a long, involved, pun-crammed headline that tells a story paralleling the item itself. The topics have ranged from fish to food to 2005’s plants, the longest he’s ever done. This year we also received some welcome input from comic writer Rich Malley, who contributed many clever heads, including one for an item about a teacher who, after one of her first-graders pooped on the floor, wrapped up his feces and sent them back home with him. Rich thought of this headline: “She felt that no child should leave behind what left the behind of the child.” When I read that, I fell out of my chair.
texasmonthly.com: When will you start working on next year’s Bum Steers list? Is it an ongoing process?
AD: Next year’s Bum Steers?! Hey, that isn’t funny.